Suffering in Silence: Harriet’s Story, 1913.

My Dilemma
This 1913 incident was the first Coroner’s case I took an interest in, mainly due to the emotional and somewhat powerful material within the inquest file. I read the file and it left such a sour taste that I investigated the case a little further. I really wanted to do justice and tell the tale, but initially I was still unsure as to whether I should include it on this blog: for this is the story of the suicide of Harriet, a 20 year-old woman from the Pleck area of Walsall.

Suicide is a sensitive subject and Harriet’s own last words talk of her being ‘sneered at for all time’, which, as you can imagine, was the last thing I wanted to see happen as a result of my telling the tale. I settled on a compromise. I decided I would tell the story, as it acts as a warning on stress, worry, vulnerability and simple family communication that seem as relevant today as it was then. In turn, I sought to keep her identity private. I would ask readers to respect this and not to search for and divulge it, simply because they can.

The Scene: The Pleck
The Pleck had had its rural peace shattered, when in the mid-nineteenth century it was dragged into Walsall proper. The Pleck Rd was home to a host of institutions and factories that would have been all too familiar to Harriet. Chief of these would have been the Walsall Workhouse (now the Manor Hospital site), but there were also several iron and steel tube manufacturing works including Russell Brothers and the Alma Works. In the 1870s, the Walsall Corporation built its gasworks, which stood between the Queen St Cemetery and Prince St, the road on which Harriet spent the last years of her life. It was flanked on one side by the London North Western Railway and on the other by the Walsall Canal, scene of our tragedy.

The Pleck, Walsall (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Pleck, Walsall, 1939. Prince St and Chapel St (later St Quentin St) are in the foreground .
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The Background
Harriet was born in the mid-months of 1893. Her father was Thomas, who was born in 1868 and from Sparkbrook, Birmingham. He was a blacksmith by profession, or at least a striker in a metal works. Her mother was Phoebe, she was from Great Bridge and was a year older than her husband.

The couple had settled in Walsall before their first child, Thomas, was born in 1889. Phoebe and Maria followed in successive years before Harriet was born in 1893. Ellen was a year younger than Harriet and then, prior to 1901, the family was completed with Samuel, who was born in 1897. According to the 1901 census, the family lived on the Wednesbury Rd in a property that has since been demolished.Clearly, it was not easy bringing up such a brood and the family had taken in a 17 year-old iron-worker named Job as a lodger. It is possible that he worked at the same factory as Thomas.

I could not trace where she went to school, although Hillary St was the closest school to their Wednesbury Rd address; indeed, it was just over the road. Sadly, the records of girl’s admissions do not start until after she would have left school; but Samuel is not listed in the boy’s admissions. There are also no entries in the parish registers for St. John’s Church, either for marriages or baptisms, for the family. There was a Primitive Methodist chapel on Oxford St and Wesleyan Methodist chapel on Wednesbury Rd, so it is possible the children were baptised in one of those.

By 1911 the family had moved to Prince St, which was just around the corner from Wednesbury Rd. The new house was a terraced house with a simple string course and had a delightful view, to the rear, of the Walsall Corporation Gas Works. The house is still there. The eldest children had flown the nest, both seemingly to get married. The 20-year old Maria and the next three, including Harriet, were described as tailor’s learners. A seventh child had also been born, Joseph. Thomas and Phoebe had seven children by 1911, and surprisingly for the times, all were still alive.

Prince St, coal carts outside the Gas Works n/d (Walsall Local History Centre)

Prince St, coal carts outside the Corporation Gas Works, early c20th 
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The current road layout is the same as in 1913. Pleck Rd split after Pagett’s Bridge, the site of the Bradford Arms pub, into Wellington St and the Old Pleck Rd. Prince St came off the Old Pleck Rd and allowed for access into the gasworks, before bending and heading to the Wednesbury Rd. Regent St peeled off just by Harriet’s house. This is is now called Caledon St in honour of the ship on which Victoria Cross recipient John Carless died. After that, and almost immediately, Chapel St connected Regent St to the Old Pleck Rd. Chapel St was renamed to St Quentin St after the First World War in commemoration of the South Staffordshire Regiment, who fought in this pivotal battle.

The area has changed considerably since 1913. The construction of several blocks of flats in the early 1960s, now ironically demolished, wrought havoc on St Quentin St, Caledon St, Oxford St and the houses on the Wednesbury Road. Only the now closed Brown Lion Pub would be recognisable to Harriet from this section of the Pleck; even the gasworks closed in the 1970s.

Harriet was described by her best friend, Lily Wellings, who lived at 51 Chapel St, as a ‘jolly girl’. She saw Lily nearly every day. It seems Harriet was still a single girl in 1913 and still lived at home. It also seems that she had no boyfriend, as there is no mention of anyone in her final note and her father claimed she was not ‘walking out with anybody’ in his statement to the police.

Harriet was certainly no idler. She had ceased her tailoring and was now employed as a ‘screwer’ at Messer’s Wilkes & Company at James Bridge. Every day she would leave her house and either walk along the Darlaston Road or take the tram to the firm, which was located in front of James Bridge cemetery on Bentley Mill Lane, between the road into cemetery, the railway and the old Darlaston and James Bridge Station.

Wednesbury Rd, around 1900, a view that Harriet would recognise. She lived at 264 until moving to Prince St, but used the road to get to work at Wilkes & Co, James Bridge. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Wednesbury Rd, c1900, a view that Harriet would recognise. She used the road to get to work at Wilkes & Co, James Bridge.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

It goes without saying that women were paid at far lower rates than men in 1913.  I haven’t made a massive study of pay-rates, but it is likely that she was paid around 10 shillings a week for far longer hours than would be acceptable today. This is half a pound sterling. There are so many factors to consider when trying to convert her pay into today’s equivalent, such as inflation, earning power etc. Estimates I have managed to find place £1 in 1913 as being in the region of £86 today, although earning power was far less. This money was probably a welcome addition to the pay of her father, mother and any of her siblings, if they were earning .

Saying that, sometime around the point that the Titanic was sliding to its watery grave, Harriet began to operate a drapery club in order to earn a little more money. A certain Mrs Wood ran a drapery shop at 302 Wednesbury Rd, now sadly demolished. Harriet, in return for a commission, would sell Mrs Wood’s goods to her work colleagues and collect weekly instalments on pay day and give these to Mrs Wood. It was sort of like a modern-day Littlewoods catalogue. It was an arrangement that worked well through the rest of 1912; she was supplied with goods weekly and paid the required weekly instalments.

The Tragedy 
It was early in 1913 that things began to turn sour for Harriet and the course of events started that would ultimately lead to her tragic death in the May of that year. All that can be stated with fact at this point is that, from around the February, Mrs Wood began to receive dwindling or no payments at all. By the middle of May, her account with Mrs Wood stood at £5 16s 4d. Wood at this stage had ceased to supply her with any more articles and when several of Harriet’s work colleagues turned up at the shop asking why they could not get any more goods, Wood pointed out that she had not received payments over the last few months. She then decided, on the 15 May, to turn the matter over to a debt collector. The man she chose was the inappropriately named Edward Goode, whose offices were at 32 Lichfield Rd, Walsall.

Debt collector, Edward Goode. His involvement would end in tragedy. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Debt collector, Edward Goode. His involvement would end in tragedy.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Until the start of May, both Lily Wellings and Harriet’s father, Thomas, claimed that Harriet had not seemed unduly concerned; something that I think is strange considering that she had allegedly been appropriating money paid to her since the February. She had complained to Lily and to her father that ‘several members of the club had not being paying their weekly contributions’. During the first weeks of May, according to her father, she was losing her appetite and liable to fits of depression, which he put down to the club situation; Lily, who saw her every day, still thought her generally jolly, but conceded at times she looked depressed. She was told by Harriet that she was ‘unable to eat her food’.

At this stage Goode waded in. His first approaches were reasonable, as to his understanding Harriet had been paid money from the club members. He visited Harriet on the same day that he was appointed, which was Thursday 15 May. At that meeting, Goode said that ‘Mrs Wood would give her every opportunity to get her account straight’ and when told she was owed money by the girls in the club, Goode quite fairly asked for a list of names and amounts of debtors. Harriet promised to supply him with the details. She didn’t.

This clearly highlighted the problem which is the crux of the issue. Harriet must not have kept a payment book in which members signed when they made a payment or given any receipts out when money was exchanged, otherwise the club members or Harriet could have produced them when needed. This was naive at best. Harriet was in a more vulnerable position, as it was she as the agent that was responsible for paying the money to Wood, not the club members. It became a case of her word against theirs. I think the gravity of the situation, whether she took the money or not, began to become clear in those early weeks of May.

The first fateful result of that meeting was that Harriet simply buried her head in the sand. She never sought the advice of her father on her situation and, as a parent, I so feel for him at this point. She had an outstanding bill for over £5, of which £4 it was alleged she had received from other club members. If she had took the money, it is not a colossal amount to repay especially with her father’s help and a visit to Mrs Wood may have prevented what was to happen. Wood was clearly sympathetic and had already said she would allow her every opportunity to get herself straight.

However, it must be remembered, Harriet never accepted either to Lily or a member of her family that she had taken money and always claimed she had paid over what she had received. Her final note to her family was loving, so it is unlikely any family member appropriated it and the members would have told her they had paid her father or sister. There is no suggestion made anywhere that she had suddenly become ‘flush’ with cash, indicating that her ‘income’ had increased.

Burying her head in the sand and failing to supply a list of debtors to Goode led to the second fateful error and most likely the coup de grace for Harriet. In a letter he wrote on Monday 19 May, which she received on the Tuesday, Goode threatened Harriet with police involvement unless she gave the names of those who owed money by the Wednesday night. She simply hid the letter. Goode’s threats were an illegal course of action. It had been illegal to imprison anyone for debt since 1869 and indeed debt was a matter for the County Court (also called the Small Claims Court) as its was a civil matter, not a criminal one.

The police interviewed Goode, who acknowledge writing the letters and threatening police involvement. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The police interviewed Goode, who acknowledge writing the letters and threatening police involvement.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

That Wednesday night Harriet spent, like a lot of other Wednesday nights, at the house of her best friend Lily Wellings. Wellings had two children. She left at 10.30 pm and to Lily ‘she then appeared all right’. Clearly, she was not. She did go home, that much is at least known. At some stage that night or in the early hours of the 22 May, she took out pen and paper and scratched her last words to her mother, father, sisters and brothers. The letter is composed, but does have errors. There are a couple of spelling mistakes and missing words, especially as the letter goes on, yet she still took time to use hyphens and make some alterations.

Maybe to avoid detection (just in case someone at home found it almost immediately), she addressed the letter to Lily and sometime before 7.50 am she left her house for the last time. She trudged around the corner, a journey I have made several times, and dropped her letter off at the house Mrs Careless, a neighbour of Lily. Harriet never arrived at work.

Around 9.20 am, Mrs Careless handed Lily the note. Lily read the note, with is obvious statement of intent: in that by the time Lily got it, she [Harriet] would ‘be at the bottom of the cut’. She took the letter to Thomas and Phoebe and the police were notified immediately. A search began for Harriet. With the palpable sense of worry, one can only guess what was going through the minds of her family and Lily. One wonders as well what Edward Goode, Mrs Wood and the ladies from the factory were thinking, as news must of leaked out quickly.

It would take four days for Thomas, Phoebe and the family to understand what befell their daughter. John Harris, of 13 Chapel St, was heading to work at around 8 am on the 26 May. His walk took him down Chapel St, past the Four Horse Shoes public house (which is still there) and across the Wellington Rd. As he crossed the canal at Woodwards Bridge, he noticed something floating in the middle of the canal; he could make out what was to be proven as the shoulders of a woman.

Harris' statement to the police on 26 May 1913. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Harris’ statement to the police on 26 May 1913.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Harris, having obtained a clothes prop, pulled the body of a young woman to the side of the canal and onto the bank. He notified the police. The girl was fully dressed, in possession of two old handkerchiefs and had clearly been in the water for several days. News spread quickly and reached her father. He reached the canal bank before she was removed and it was here, in her current state, that Thomas identified the body as that of Harriet. As a father, I find this particularly distressing. Thomas, I assume, went to tell Phoebe, the family, her friends and colleagues of the discovery. PC Vaughan took the body away to the mortuary.

The Inquest
Two days later an inquest was held into the affair. The contents of her last letter were read to the court and, after hearing the story presented to you, the jury passed a verdict of suicide by drowning whilst of unsound mind. According to the jury, the letter from Edward Goode prompted the action and the jury were at pains to point out the writers of such letters should be more aware of the consequences of what they write. The court decided not to censure Goode even after the Coroner had pointed out that his actions in threatening police action were illegal, in what was clearly a civil matter.

The inquest; the Coroner condemns the illegal actions of Goode, but stops short of a censure. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The inquest; the Coroner condemns the illegal actions of Goode, but stops short of a censure.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

After going through this anguish and watching Edward Goode get little more than a ticking off, for at best stupidity and at worse a callous act to incite fear, Thomas had to then compose himself enough to get through the funeral. Harriet was buried at Ryecroft Cemetery on the 29 May 1913. She lies in an unmarked grave.

The grave of Harriet Cox in Ryecroft Cemetery, May 2013

Harriet’s grave in Ryecroft Cemetery, I visited on 29 May 2013.

I started this article claiming that the story of Harriet acts as a warning: it does so on two accounts. The first is the issue of debt. To ask whether or not Harriet took the money is to miss the point of all of this. Today, satellite TV channels are full of ways to write of debt; they of course talk of tens of thousands, when this case revolves around £500 in today’s money. The other thing they promise to do is stop creditor hassle, which I am sure would be applauded by, if a little late for, Harriet. This suicide would never have happened if the events that took place in May 1913 had in fact taken place last year. So while these adverts are annoying to many, give thanks that there is some protection for the vulnerable.

The second warning is the age old one regarding family communication. In many ways, as a father, I identify with Thomas more than anyone. He lost his 20 year-old daughter, mainly as she never spoke to him of her anxieties when things came to a head after Goode’s threat. He worried for four days whilst she was missing and then had to identify her on a canal bank. He then saw the only man, in his eyes guilty of anything, just get a ticking off by the court. Her own last words to him were ambiguous:‘I am sorry to cause you this trouble as I should be sneered all the days of my life so I shall be better off… your broken hearted daughter’. Better off? He must have wondered how for the rest of his life.

My thanks to:
The Walsall Local History Centre

In remembrance of Harriet

  1. angvs72 says:

    In light of recent news and the acceptance of depression as a disease, I would hazard a guess that there was most likely a lot more going on in this ladies mind and that the debt became the tipping point, depression is still poorly regarded by many and unfortunately communication with those closest to you is the most difficult. Humans do what best they can before humanity itself fails them.

    As I am sure you know I check this blog daily and look forward to every new article 🙂

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Angus, I disagree. Harriet was always a ‘jolly girl’, i think it was directly down to the anxiety caused by the threats of Goode that led to what happened. The Coroner’s court was all to aware of depression/anxiety – it used the ubiquitous phrase ‘due to the balance of the mind being disturbed’ as its explanation. Sadly, there was little help then (Citizen Advice Bureau, medical etc). This was a difficult article to write, but it was as much about how times have changed regarding such help than simply telling a rather unhappy tale.

  2. Clive says:

    Very interesting and also very sad. Keeping problems to yourself can cause you to amplify the problem in your mind, such as this poor young lady, she could only see one way out of this problem that she had got herself into, wether it was her fault or not.

  3. kate Goodall says:

    A sad story, very sensitively crafted.

  4. Pedro says:

    I have read this article a few times now, and I think something must be put into context.

    I can understand, that for such a sensitive subject, Harriet’s real name should remain private, but the “outing” of Edward Goode worries me.

    With my limited research into “accidents” in the local industries, from about 1840 to 1925, there a many wealthy industrialists who could be “outed”, and maybe a few Coroners!

    But Eh, When you think of Hillsborough what has changed!

  5. Flanders Field says:

    A very interesting and well written article.

    Two very different points;

    When I was 14 years old we were one of the first families to move into the first high-rise block in that area, many of the old buildings that she would have known were still there, but not for long.

    IMHO Harriet’s real name should be concealed as she is a tragic victim, Goode on the other hand was far from a victim, it can be argued that his heavy-handed tactics, bordering on bullying, were a major cause of her death. He seems to have got off quite lightly at the time and I for one have no misgivings over him being ‘outed’ decades after his death.

    R.I.P. Harriet!

    • Pedro says:

      Quite right.

      My point is that names appear on this and other blogs, more powerful than Goode, which could come under scrutiny. They lived luxurious style from the toil of the working poor, but in some quarters are held up as benefactors!

  6. Gary says:

    What a great read. I can accross this searching for prince street as I have just been staying in Walsall for 2 weeks on training for my job and when I saw the street with the old gates to the gasworks all still there I had to stop and look around. If you got rid of the cars, the tarmac and the double glazing windows then u could have been in 1917 not 2017. Hope they never knock streets like these down.

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